Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Few Notes On Tales Designed To Thrizzle #7

A new comic from the top humorist in comics is always welcome. This issue is the usual combination of dada and surprisingly tightly-wrapped narrative gags surrounding the sort of cultural detritus mined by Drew Friedman & Mark Newgarden. Let's survey some highlights:

1. Front Cover/Back Cover. This is a classic series of nonsensical Kupperman juxtapositions: a slightly-deranged looking woman in an evening gown next to a woodpecker is on the front cover, while a woman's foot wearing a purple shoe is about to hit a flashing "contamination alarm". The front cover is closer to his older, denser style of rendering while the latter is his simpler, more iconic style. As always, they are presented matter-of-factly and with no further comment.

2. Inside Front Cover. This is a variation on a common parody of editorial cartoons: an arm (labeled "arm") is pulling a cord for a light bulb (labeled "light bulbs"), which illuminates a piece of paper (labeled "writing which requires light to be read"). The caption: "The scam continues". It's done in the sort of shaded penciling common to such cartoons and has a punchline that's absurd (how is a lightbulb's purpose a scam?) and direct (someone has it out for the lightbulb industry).

3. "Scary Bathtub Stories". This was the weakest of the longer features, as bathtubs are derided as frightening vessels of death and horror in a couple of stories. The punchline (it's a publication done by a showerhead store!) is OK, but Kupperman adds to it by listing out thirty different kinds of showerheads, including "Elliot Spritzer" and "George Wash-A-Ton".

4. "Quincy, M.E.". Kupperman gloms on to the idea that there's just something funny about Jack Klugman: those craggy features are fun to draw and the original show was fairly ridiculous. This is one of Kupperman's best strips because he keeps adding new layers of plot to an already-ridiculous story. Quincy has a word with St Peter, finds himself in St Peter's own comic book series, is told by Leo DeCaprio that this is all a "Quinception", and then dreams himself into observing Reservoir Dogs 2. Snake 'n Bacon show up, along with an analyst riding a giant hamster. Every details manages to tie together, winding up as a bit of commentary on the silliness of the show itself.

5. "Hamanimal", "McArf", "Twain and Einstein" and "A Voyage to Narnia". The latter strip is a bit of fumetti that continues from an ad in the Quincy story, detailing a man's "voyage to Narnia" that mostly consists of standing in a closet. He somehow manages to convince his wife's friend to come with him, saying "farewell, reality!" as the door edges closed behind them. I'm not sure what making this fumetti added to the strip, other than getting his friends to do something silly. The other three stories are about dumb superhero origins (a ham struck by lightning that turns into animal shapes), gritty PSA dogs ("scum turn my stomach, yet I spend most of my life among them...") and the white-haired duo dealing with a case of alter egos.

All told, we get an all-time great story with Quincy and a bunch of solid comics. It's notable that this issue is all-comics, unlike the longer text pieces that had had started doing in some previous issues. Perhaps knocking out that Mark Twain book sated Kupperman's appetite for such pieces, although it seems obvious that letting color do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the storytelling is making things easier for him as an artist. "Hamanimal", for example, looks like a sketchbook piece knocked out in just a few minutes; the key was to get across the gag, and using a sickly green for the title character did the trick. I still miss the sheer density of detail in Kupperman's older work that made reading it almost exhausting, but the avalanche of ideas remains intact, as does his ability to elicit laughs.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Minicomics Round-Up: Spina, Robinson, Solomon, Kirby, Ullman/Brown

This batch of minicomics is a true grab-bag and is hard to pin down to any one particular genre:

Fight, by Sam Spina. This comic won a Xeric grant for Spina and is not unlike a slightly gentler version of Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit. While Spina's diary strip may be prosaic at times, his fiction has always been extra-crazy in response. He comes up with wacky premises, carries them through to their logical extremes, and then bombards the reader with uncomfortable gags along the way. Fight features a world where certain creatures have been bioengineered for specific tasks. This comic focuses on humanoid creatures bred only to fight for entertainment. The plot follows a creature called Fight, his downfall and eventual triumph over the female Super Fight that defeats him via trickery, her psychopathic offspring that forms as a result of their brief coupling, and lots of battles along the way. Spina loves gross-out gags, like when Super Fight gives birth to a bounding creature or the truly revolting Boobstadon, a sort of walking set of teats with a brain that is forcibly milked. The scene where an overeager farmer fondles it lasciviously is hilariously uncomfortable, but Spina tops it with Super Fight's child unexpectedly ripping it (and everything else in its path) to shreds. Spina's line is simple and energetic, and the mini-sized format helps add a density and urgency to each page. It's definitely an interesting step for an artist still developing his voice as a humorist.

Box Office Poison #78, by Alex Robinson. This minicomic represents Robinson's failed attempt to revive his first comics series, as he was looking for a new direction after some false starts. He has said that he thought it might be easy and fun to see what his characters were up to a few years after the conclusion of the series (which of course was collected by Top Shelf in one massive tome), but he abandoned this path as well. This mini represents a few pages from that attempt, packaged as though Robinson had never stopped doing the series as minicomics. It's clever and a delightful little gift for fans of the series. All of the BOP trademarks are there: interstitial stories focusing on one character, character surveys, a guest pin-up, a letters page, and a page from another abandoned Robinson project, a sequel to Lower Regions. Seeing some of Robinson's tricks like temporarily abandoning a realistic style for cartoony anger or filling up pages with thought balloons was also quite welcome. That said, I can understand why he abandoned the project: he wasn't saying anything new. He had a fairly definitive ending for BOP, and while it might have been tempting to see if protagonist Sherman Davies could be rescued from a hellish existence with his girlfriend Dorothy and find a healthy relationship, I thought that originally downbeat ending was a more appropriate way to leave the character. It was still nice to see the sprawl of characters even in this short minicomic; this is where Robinson has always excelled as a writer. That's why I prefer BOP and especially Tricked! over Too Cool To Be Forgotten; being able to explore a number of different emotional states and personae seems to be precisely the kind of challenge that pushes Robinson to evolve.

Our Fantastic Universe, by Lizzee Solomon. This odd little comic is the black & white version of a story that's going to be published in a collection dedicated to extraterrestrial sex. This version puts the emphasis on Solomon's grotesque linework, balanced against the amusingly sedate and even detached narration of the "host" of this "series" about alien sexuality. The story details the mating habits of cactus-like creatures called Milchigs and tiny, airborne creatures called Fleart, as the two species have a synergistic relationship. In pulsating, undulating and throbbing detail, Solomon shows us both the typical, nature-show style side of their sexuality as well as some unexpected aspects of their lives. The Fleart, once ingested by the Milchigs, engage in frottage. The Milchigs, once engorged by having ingested Fleart, engage in an extreme form of S&M that not all of them survive. The effect is a variation on body horror, where instead of physical transformation being a source of fear or dread, it's a source for pleasure. For the reader, it's no less strange an experience to read and just as unsettling.

King For A Day, by Rob Kirby. This comic is an interesting departure for comics veteran Kirby, best known for his slice-of-life relationship comics as well as for helming the queer-themed anthology Three. This is a silent comic about a man who is literally shat upon who then finds a crown. That suddenly inspires instant worship and admiration from everyone he happens to come upon. Of course, this sad sack character can't quite end up with a happy ending, even in his own dreams, and Kirby takes great delight in piling on a series of catastrophes, humiliations and general physical comedy. His art is simple and classically cartoony, with rubbery character design that expands into full-out exaggeration during certain scenes. The way he varies line thickness is a big key to the success of the comic; a thicker line usually indicates something significant happening, but that slight variation also makes the lines comprising his characters pop out on the page. The result is a delightfully charming comic that makes the most of a thin premise thanks to funny drawings on nearly every page.

Old-Timey Hockey Tales, by Rob Ullman & Jeffrey Brown. This is a comics rarity: a straightforward series of stories about sports. It helps that cartoonists Brown & Ullman chose to write about the most visceral of major sports, ice hockey and that its early participants were kind of crazy. The design of this mini is typically handsome, thanks to Ullman's eye for detail. Ullman selected items that were more anecdotes than narratives, like a strip about Maurice "Rocket" Richard being banned from the NHL and the ensuing series of riots, or a tight-fisted owner resisting the league mandate to put the names of players on the back of jerseys and protesting with names that were the same color as the uniforms themselves. Brown favored more sustained narratives, like when how the Detroit Red Wings wound up playing a group of prisoners; how one player got revenge on a coach who tried to trade him; and why anyone who messed with Gordie Howe was an idiot. Ullman's story about the great goalie Terry Sawchuk (originally published years ago in an SPX anthology) is still one of his best, documenting Sawchuk's skill as a player and how awful he was as a person. At 28 pages, this mini left me wanting more, especially because the two cartoonists have art styles and approaches to narrative that are so different. I'd love to see an all-sports comics anthology; Dan Zettwoch has done interesting work about basketball & baseball (if I had a million dollars, I'd commission Zettwoch to create an illustrated version of the book Loose Balls, an oral history of the ABA), while Dennis Eichorn has written a number of stories about football. This would be truly "mainstream" work, given America's love of sports.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Few Notes On Motherlover

I won't be formally reviewing the new 2D Cloud release Motherlover because I wrote the foreword to the book. Instead, I'll just contribute a few notes about the book, which is an anthology featuring the work of Nic Breutzman and the team of John & Luke Holden.

1. The Breutzman story "You Can't Be Here" was originally self-published as a broadsheet. In the anthology, it was redesigned and a layer of sickly green and purple was added by editor/publisher/colorist Raighne Hogan, giving the story another layer of alienation. Here's my original review of the story:

"Nicholas Breutzman is an exciting young artist whose grim comics inspire feelings of dread and malaise. Breutzman has been ambitiously and aggressively experimental with regard to format and design with his early works as he’s explored some uncomfortable subjects. You Can’t Be Here was done in broadsheet format, giving each panel a certain power and heft that he filled with zip-a-tone. Breutzman once again zeroed in the subjects that have informed his small body of work to date: the darker side of small-town life, the way the claustrophobia of such an existence leads people to do strange things, and the ways man and nature have an adversarial relationship. Breutzman is a master of both the single striking image and overall restraint with his storytelling, a combination that helps create that air of dread. The reader always gets the feeling that something awful has happened or will happen. The image of a washing machine on the side of a wooded road as roadkill and its subsequent “crossing” is Breutzman at his best, combining the absurd with the unsettling.

Breutzman’s style is unusual in that he mixes naturalism in terms of his backgrounds and character designs with slightly loose, rubbery expressions on his characters’ faces. The result is both amusing and disturbing, like a boy appearing on an ATV with bugged-out eyes, freckles and a crew cut. This comic concerns a down on his luck young man who leaves New York (after having been swindled by fake crack) to return to his small town. His recollection of two kids he knew when he was younger who did horrible things to the local opossums early in the story referred back to the title of the story, giving it a different meaning. It’s not just that he and his friend weren’t allowed at a nearly abandoned housing development, it was that simply being back in old patterns was going to lead him down a dark path, one that part of him knew he would enjoy taking. Breutzman is going to be an artist to follow for quite some time."

2. Speaking of which, Hogan has a huge hand in creating the atmosphere to be found in the Holden Bros' "The Boys". The spattered green & purple add a lot to the loose, grotesque pencils and sordid, haunted subject matter of a group of boys desperately trying to find pornography.

3. Breutzman's first story in the collection, "Photograph", is a crisp story about a missed connection on one end and the latest in a series of dead end encounters on the other end. Breutzman's stories are all about trying to establish connections and how difficult that ultimately can be.

4. I won't be ranking this book in my top 50 for conflict of interest reasons, but I would certainly place solidly in my top 25 if I did.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Minicomics and Genre: Doug Michel, Jason Viola, Tim Rocks, Mike Fisher

A number of minis I receive fall into the category of gag work or humorous genre. Let's take a look at a few of them:

Monkey Force One #7 & #8, by Doug Michel. This comic is part epic adventure and part spoof, as Michel blends the X-Men, James Bond, sci-fi, scatological kids' humor, Scott Pilgrim and coming-of-age stories into one dizzying package. It helps that Michel keeps his line simple, varying his line weights to make his characters pop off the page but keeping everything else fairly clear. That's helpful for the reader, because Michel is a "kitchen sink plus" kind of artist, cramming his panels with details, figures, weapons, posters and other chicken fat. There are occasions when Michel indulges in a more detailed extreme close-up of a particular piece of action the way a video game might cut away to that sort of animation. The weird tension in these issues is between the shared indy rock band past of several characters and how their lives are intersecting in the middle of a zombie invasion of St. Louis. I found those conflicts more interesting than the zombie fights, which are all pretty standard issue. Indeed, Michel's main weakness as an artist is depicting action; the stiffness of his line that's appropriate for scenes depicting conversation makes his fight scenes less interesting to look at. That's especially true for fistfights, where Michel seems to have a shaky grasp on how bodies relate to each other in space and how to hook the reader into immediately turning their attention to the next panel. Michel is at his best when he's poking fun at the genre conventions he genuinely enjoys, like when a rapper comes across Zombie Tupac and Zombie Biggie Smalls and demands to get a picture with them for his next album. It's that breeziness that gives these comics their energy and appeal.

Pete Moss: A Kid Who Has Adventures, by Tim Rocks. This is a hyperexaggerated screwball comic somewhat in the vein of Peter Bagge, in terms of the frenetic quality of its storytelling. It's about a kid who mistakenly receives news that he's a terminal case, who then proceeds to try to get laid before he dies while tricking a variation on the Make-A-Wish foundation. Rocks gets across most of his humor with funny and/or grotesque drawings and over-the-top satire. The drawing is much more interesting than the writing, which aims for shocking and falls well short of shock or even pointed commentary. On the other hand, Rocks is unrelenting in the avalanche of gross and funny images he throws at the reader, making this comic interesting to flip through if not especially memorable otherwise.

Jay's Brain, by Jason Viola. Viola is best known for his webcomic gag strip Herman The Manatee, but I've often enjoyed his side projects more. This is a series of gags about Viola and his anthropomorphic brain, and what's most interesting about it is the obvious discomfort the artist feels from drawing these strips. For an artist who does pretty silly gags (even the ones that touch on despair still feel like shtick), Viola is surprisingly personal and even confessional in these strips that touch on panic attacks, saying horrible things to those he loves, a lack of inspiration and other issues not unfamiliar to readers of autobio comics. The difference is that his brain character turns every strip into a punchline, no matter how awful or uncomfortable the premise. Viola turns his social anxiety into some pretty fertile ground for humor (the page of tweets from his brain is especially amusing--it tells Viola things like "You shouldn't have said that" while wondering "Why don't they put flavor crystals in EVERYTHING?"), making this his single strongest work to date.

3-D Pete's Star Babe Invasion Comics, by Mike Fisher. This comic/zine is exactly what it claims to be--a celebration and examination of sexy women in science fiction films. What makes it enjoyable is the light tone Fisher employs throughout, deemphasizing prurience and playing up humor. It helps that he has rock-solid fundamentals as a cartoonist, capturing the naturalistic essence of a figure without losing the cartoony quality of his compositions. Speaking through his mouthpiece character 3-D Pete, Fisher discusses Jane Fonda in Barbarella and which Star Trek guest actress was most appealing, as well as silly strips where Pete encounters less-than-sharp aliens and tries to get on a space ark. The interview with a model from a sci-fi themed beer commercial is entirely gratuitous; it doesn't really add much to the comic other than letting us know that he managed to interview a model. While the comic is entirely disposable, Fisher's line is wonderfully fluid and expressive. A full length genre story from Fisher would be quite pleasant to read.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Checking In With Caitlin Cass

Caitlin Cass is a young cartoonist mining territory not unlike that of Kate Beaton. In my review of some comics of hers from 2010, I noted that "As she figures out her style, her already-sharp wit will be better served by clearer, more dynamic and simpler images." It's clear that this is precisely what she has done in her most recent work, part of a series of minicomics she sends out in the mail. (The series is called "Great Moments In Western Civilization Postal Constituent"). Design and details like lettering have become much crisper, more powerful and fluid. Her wit remains intact, but she's directing that in a more coherent fashion as well. Beaton's work is primarily comedic, using her knowledge of history and literature as a framework for jokes. While humor is also an important element of Cass' work, it's frequently more subdued and less gag-oriented. It's clear that she's still steeped in her unusual corner of academic obsessions, which is not surprising considering her training at St John's College, an institution devoted to studying the Great Books of the Western World.

What Cass learned from her earlier comics is that it's not enough to simply make references to philosophers and hope the reader gets something out of it. She learned to synthesize her particular and personal ruminations regarding the work of certain thinkers with a visual approach that's engaging for the reader and fairly fully-realized. Take V2 #12 of the Postal Constituent; it's all about Friedrich Nietzsche. This was done on cardstock with duo-tone blues. That's eye-catching on its own, but her character design is simple and striking. The story focuses on Nietzsche's last days, when he was faced with the logical endpoint of his philosophy and lived it all the way through. Claiming "I am god. This farce is my creation." is as close as possible a bridge between what would become existentialism and humanism, yet that path led to madness. Feeling oneself responsible for all of the evils of the world is the logical extreme for Nietzsche's particular brand of megalomania.

"A Thing About Things" (V2, #4), is a huge illustration on a single sheet of paper that also unfolds. It evokes a certain 19th century feel in terms of the way the illustration is carefully designed, constructed and labeled. It's a quasi-farcical history of "things" and man's relationship to them. Cass still doesn't quite have the chops to pull off the complexity of this illustration (her drafting skills are a little wobbly), but it's an ambitious attempt. "Relics" (V2, #1) is a more personal story about the hermeneutics of discovering a shard from a plate as a child. It was found at the site of the first building in her town, and the mere possession of it led to Cass creating creating connections between the shard and its potential history and ramifications. The shard can only be understood in terms of its larger historical context, but that history is brought to life but discovering the artifact. One can see the leap Cass made as an artist between this issue and later issues, both in terms of simple drawing ability and the ambitiousness of her design.

Finally, "The Arabian Babbler" (V2, #8) is a standard minicomic distinguished by some striking illustrations and the boldness of her lettering style. This is the only one of the comics here that deals explicitly with another one of her interests, which is the history of science. That particular field of study is closely linked to philosophy because it is based so heavily on theory, as the works of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper demonstrate. This comic is a more light-hearted but no less pointed critique of the ways in which science can become rigid and its conclusions applied in misguided ways that can be harmful. In it, a scientist comes to certain conclusions about human nature because of a species of bird that gave things to other birds for no good reason. He concluded (certainly not the first conclusion sound reached with a faulty premise) that altruism was counter-evolutionary and we should stop doing it--until he observed a bird stealing something. He experienced not so much a paradigm shift as a paradigm shattering. Cass's drawings of birds make this a distinctive and beautiful comic, especially in the way she combines word and image. Cass is starting to become an artist well worth taking notice of, and I'm excited at the possibilities of a longer-form work from her at some point.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Asking The Tough Questions: Whit Taylor's Watermelon...

Whit Taylor is an interesting young voice in comics, one who generally relates humorous anecdotes about her friends, culture and her dating life. With Watermelon...(And Other Things That Make Me Uncomfortable As A Black Person), Taylor gets a bit more serious and directed with regard to her subject matter, but still treats the most serious of issues with a light touch. Taylor has her own opinions on any number of controversial subjects, but they're carefully considered and discussed; this isn't a series of rants. Instead, it's an attempt to examine, understand, critique and appreciate her own culture, as well as understand it in a wider societal context. As the title promises, the book opens with a focus on why watermelon became a cultural stereotype for African-Americans, and how to this day it isn't something she cares to eat in public.

Taylor flips from lighthearted topics such as what she does at the beach since she doesn't lay out for a suntan to the n-word and its origins. There's a funny bit where Taylor appears on panel and informs her white readers that it's essentially never acceptable for them to use it, even if Dave Chappelle or rappers do. "You just can't. End of story." I enjoyed the fact that Taylor didn't feel the need to go through a lot of gyrations as to why, focusing instead on the fact that the history of the word and its use is so pernicious that she wasn't going to give white readers carte blanche to say it.

The other highlights of the comic include an extended meditation on hair and the ways in which African-American men and women both attempt to a (white) societal notion of what hair should look like as well as ways in which more natural looks are cultivated. Including anecdotes about her own personal experience (like a girl mistaking one of her hairs for pubic hair) fleshed out what otherwise could have been an overly familiar piece about the importance of the hair salon and barber shop in black culture. Another highlight was her story about almost dating a (white) South African man when she was studying abroad in Australia. She notes that there was part of her who did this as a sort act of self-loathing but eventually broke away from her infatuation when his casual racism became much more overt.

In terms of her art, Taylor's layout and character design are both solid. It's obvious that her control of her line isn't what she would want it to be; she tries to draw a number of things in a naturalistic manner and falls well short of making them compelling as drawings. Some of them (like drawings of famous people or things like cars) hurt her storytelling because they take the reader so far out of the panel. Taylor needs to go in one of two directions: either work harder on the facility of her line for a more naturalistic approach, or go to a simplified and streamlined approach that's consistent in how it presents information. That kind of stylization is difficult for a young artist. The ambition, production values and thought behind this mini indicate an artist who's serious about making her mark as a cartoonist and who wants to get better. As such, I suspect that Taylor will ultimately strike a middle ground between naturalism and stylization. As long as she keeps drawing and keeps trying to improve, watching her evolution as an artist in public should be interesting and rewarding for readers.

Monday, December 12, 2011

More Autobio: Kat Roberts, Bill Burg, Jason Young

Here's a look at three different kinds of autobio minicomics.

March, by Bill Burg. The bulk of this diary comic takes place over the course of March in two different years, but as the cover indicates, it's also about the inevitable march of time. The cartoonist chose to begin a daily diary strip in parallel with his friend Rob Ullman at a crucial time in his life: shortly after the death of his beloved father and right when he and his wife found out she was pregnant. His line reminds me a lot of Ullman's, in fact: simple, supple lines and slightly cartoonish storytelling. This comic is all about the attempt to come to terms with grief and how hard it is to balance that grief against the emergence of new life and new responsibilities. Implied is the challenge that Burg finds it hard to become a father while no longer being his father's son.

Given that this is a diary strip, there's plenty of quotidian details and little jokes that fill up its pages, but they're all tinged with a certain melancholia as Burg frequently finds it difficult to find joy in life. It's not that he's not working or being dutiful or inattentive to the needs of his wife, it's that the things he used to enjoy no longer hold the same attraction. In other words, he was going through a particularly difficult grieving process. One of the things I found most interesting about this comic was how Burg explores the feelings his father had for his own father, who died a few days after Bill Burg was born. That man was abusive and awful in any number of ways, but Burg's father loved him deeply despite his many flaws; reconciling the memory of a loved one with the reality of their existence is one of the toughest parts of the grieving process. Later in this comic, Burg does very much the same thing with his own father. While his dad was always kind, attentive and loving as a parent, he had his detractors with regard to his career as head of a power company in Ohio. Burg reports that his dad was on many "worst executive" lists and many people had demanded his resignation at various times. Burg doesn't try to refute these charges or defend his father; he simply states the facts as they were as part of an effort to understand and accept his father, warts and all. While this comic didn't provide the sort of catharsis he had hoped for (as he addresses in one strip), it seems like both the process of making it and the journey he took as a father himself did put him in a different place by the end. The thoughts expressed by Burg are familiar, but there's a wonderfully humane, understanding quality to his work that elevates it above standard autobio fare.

You Are Always On My Mind, by Kat Roberts. This is a collection of dream comics that tie into autobiographical moments. It's a handmade comic with some full color segments and is a lovely overall package. The tenor of these dream comics is amusing, with titles like "I Lost My Virginity To Jim Morrison" and "The Nude Suit". There's a wispy, ethereal quality to her line that makes it all the more effective when used for comedic effect. While the notion of Morrison showing up in a thirteen year old's dream as a life-changing event is ridiculous (if fitting, given the perfect fit between the histrionics of the Doors and the moods of a teen) and Roberts plays up the laughs, she also is careful to note how serious this was to her at the time. "Nude Suit" is played for both laughs and terror, as Roberts performs in some kind of forest theater in a "nude" bodystocking, dancing to a song whose lyrics went "my nude suit! my nude suit!". She tries to play it cool, not knowing the song would go on interminably--but the audience did. There are a couple of other, more typically jumbled dream stories involving eating her sins and building a boat after chopping down a tree; these stories feel like standard dream comics. For someone who's best known as a webcartoonist, Roberts has crafted a comic whose tactile qualities are a large part of its appeal.

Veggie Dog Saturn #5, by Jason Young. These autobio stories mostly focus on tales from Young's youth and are played for (frequently off-color) laughs. The book opens up with "Salad Days", a story about young Jason going to a restaurant, eating nothing but the salad bar, and then vomiting into the restaurant's bathroom sink. The punchline involves the next person who walked into the bathroom and the dirty look he threw Jason's way. Throughout the book, Young spins tales of a family gleefully visiting a cemetery to plan out a family crypt, meditates (in excruciatingly funny detail) about what music one would really want in a "desert island scenario", and muses about his past as a casual shoplifter. "The Tape" is about his brother's magical ability to find naked women on a video cassette, turning into a surprisingly emotionally earnest (if amusingly gross) anecdote about the connection he shares with him. "The Day I Met Kenny Rogers" sums up the nature of these anecdotes: randomly profane, mostly innocuous and funny both in and of themselves but also mocking bad past behavior. Young doesn't always have great control over his line; some of his figures are cruder than others and his line weight sometimes fades to near-imperceptibility. What makes it work is a steady, amusing self-caricature--both as a child and a bearded, almost Muppet-like adult.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Attention: New Address!

To all the artists who may wish to send me something for review: I have a new address. It's:

Rob Clough
404 Tall Oaks Drive
Durham, NC 27713

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Autobio/Diary Roundup: Dabaie, Wertz, Baylis, Spina, Marcej, Harbin

Let's take a look at a variety of diary and autobiographical minicomics.

He Also Has Drills For Hands!, by Marguerite Dabaie. This is a self-curated collection of Dabaie's best daily strips over the span of a year, and the result is a minicomic that leaves the reader wanting more. These are drawn in a sketchbook and combine the intimacy and loose feel of such a drawing with a surprising level of detail and some attractive decorative features. In her Hookah Girl comics, Dabaie isn't necessarily known for her sense of humor (though there are funny moments), but her daily strip is far more likely to end with a punchline of some kind. The title of the strip refers to one of her childhood crushes--a character from a video game with drills for hands. Dabaie throws in bits and pieces from her childhood, creativity, daily life, her then-fiancee (and now husband) and a tale about inadvertently meeting John Cusack. In the selection of comics she published in this mini, it seems that she takes great pains to tell an entertaining story of some kind in her strips, rather than just focus on relating particular quotidian events. That said, Dabaie does reveal bits and pieces about her life through stories about her grandmother and things she sees on the streets of New York--it's just that every strip has the same slightly comic and exaggerated flavor, heightened by the charming immediacy & roughness of her line.

Spinadoodles: The Second Year, by Sam Spina. This is the latest big batch of diary comics from Spina, a cartoonist who's clearly attempting the daunting task of getting better in public. In over a year and a half worth of daily strips (he never missed a day), Spina tries different art styles and moves a bit away from the obvious influence of James Kochalka. The overall experience of reading this was not as rewarding as reading the samplers from Marcej and Dubaie, two cartoonists who pared down their strips to a "best-of" selection. Spina chose to steam ahead with every last strip, no matter if they were half-assed, uninspired or repetitive. This mini is a document not only of his life, but also of his development as an artist. It wouldn't be quite truthful to omit strips done while he was dead tired from a long day at work, but the resulting reading experience was a bit of a slog at times. This is not to say that there weren't highlights; indeed, about 1 out of every 4 strips either landed a decent laugh, contained a personal revelation or had an interesting drawing. Given that there are 400 or so strips (with 4 crammed to a page), that's still a fairly solid showing. And some of the best strips (like the ones where he shows snippets of arguments with his girlfriend) are all the more effective because their tone is so unlike his other comics. The strips that work best are usually the ones that look the least like Kochalka's; that is, strips with less line weight (especially in the panels) that rely more on the basic figures rather than textures.

One thing that surprised me was that after a certain point, the rhythm of the strip started to grab me. It wasn't so much that the individual entries became noticeably stronger over time, but rather the kind of observations Spina was making started to become appealing on their own. Spina portrays himself neither as a deep thinker or someone who's especially introspective, but the raw surface energy of his observations has a propulsive quality. Eventually, Spina's simple caricature of himself (big, angular nose and sharp chin), frequently childlike enthusiasm, and self-deprecatory charm leave more of an impression than any particular anecdote. Projects like this eventually tend to have diminishing returns (Spina himself complains about how much more productive he might be if he wasn't doing a daily strip in one entry) unless they become one's life's work, ala Ben Snakepit. I don't think this is true of Spina, so I imagine there will come a point where what he's getting out of drawing these strips is far exceeded by the amount of time and effort he puts into them.

So Buttons #4, by Jonathan Baylis and various artists. Baylis has been writing autobio comics drawn by others for the past couple of years, but this issue of So Buttons represents his biggest leap forward in all respects. First off, the format and coloring of this mini are clean, attractive and reflect a lot of attention to detail. Second, the ordering of the stories was deliberate (as Baylis notes in his introduction) and far more effective than in past issues. There's a beautiful flow of styles as Baylis roughly moves in chronological order. Third, everyone in his roster of artists did a fine job. More on that in a moment, but Baylis' past contributors in particular have made real strides in their storytelling. Lastly, Baylis has finally learned to rein himself in a bit. A huge flaw for many writers who don't draw (especially those that do autobio) is that they tend to over-write their stories. They simply don't know how to let the visuals of the story work as an equal partner. There's also a tendency to ramble on for too many pages instead of distilling an anecdote to its essence, the way that Harvey Pekar did so well. Baylis still has a tendency to overexplain the significance of certain events rather than letting the event speak for itself, but that tendency is lessened when he writes shorter stories. The fact that the stories in this volume were all between two to four pages seems to be a key as to why they were so effective.

Much of this issue is an ode to filmmakers that have meaning for Baylis, often in connection to specific life events. "So...Chalk It Up To Konglateral Damage", drawn by Thomas Boatwright, is interesting because Baylis associated the movie with Thanksgiving--and that he never got to see it all the way through. "So...Stranger Than Parrot Eyes" (also drawn by Boatwright) is a more cartoonish story about Baylis seeing director Jim Jarmusch on the street. Baylis fantasizes about hanging out with him and his "Sons of Lee Marvin" friends while ruminating on what appeals to him about film and what turns him off. Noah Van Sciver draws "So...Loyal", a history of his baseball fandom. Van Sciver eschews a literal approach in terms of the imagery he uses to illustrate Baylis' narrative in favor of a more whimsical take. It's an approach I haven't seen before in a Baylis comic, and it works. Fred Hembeck draws a very funny story about Baylis' internship at Marvel Comics and how he was put in a position to correct John Romita, Sr. on a piece of art. That there are so many stories in this issue (eleven plus a bonus page from Van Sciver) gives it a nice weight and denseness; the issue turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts.

My World And Welcome To It, by Richard Marcej. Marcej is a toy designer and occasional cartoonist who decided to do a diary comic as a way of getting himself to draw every day. The subject matter is mostly standard diary work: movies he sees, bathroom habits, notable sights and events from his life. He is, however, extremely open about his life in terms of his dating habits and family tragedies, treating them with respect but also with the same level of detail he uses in his other strips. What sets this strip apart from similar work is the fact that each entry is cleverly composed and extremely well drawn. Marcej uses a single large panel frame and varies the strip's internal structure depending on what sort of story he's telling. For things like movie reviews, he splits the page up into four panels, underneath the date and a title for the strip. In the strip above, a single image dominates the entire page. In other strips, he'll lead the reader in three different panels that bleed into each other. Marcej pays special attention to clarity in his storytelling while adding a lot of detail such as hatching, cross-hatching and carefully-rendered structures. Marcej is also a fine letterer, a crucial but overlooked aspect of diary comics--especially for wordy artists like himself. The clarity and simply pleasing quality of his lettering makes even the most text-dominated strips nice to look at. Marcej isn't exactly being innovative with this strip, but it's one of the best examples of this sub-genre.

The Great Pretenders And Other Stories, by Julia Wertz. Some of these stories have appeared in past Wertz minicomics, but this mini is the best collection of Wertz's new trend in storytelling until her new book comes out. All of the stories here are from Wertz's childhood and they're entirely unsentimental, raw takes on the ways in which children parse the adult world. There's a reference in the title story to a baby in Wertz's family dying when she was just a child, leading to a game with her older brother wherein he pretended he was his own fictional twin brother. There's a running theme in Wertz's comics of wanting to be someone else, wanting a different life and identity. There's a tension between being a near-solipsist and someone desperately craving meaningful interaction, and that conflict is evident in these childhood strips as well. Wertz has a constant sense of things not being quite right (like the amazing strip where she and her brother are momentarily excited that they might be getting a heat lamp for Christmas instead of a Nintendo video game system), and that feeling is hilariously warped through her own logic as a child. The dread that Wertz felt as a child also emerged in her anxiety over "killing" Jesus in a tea party game and living at the foot of a mountain that supposedly housed vicious flying monkeys. Wertz's bug-eyed drawings are getting more and more self-assured; she's found a clear, distinct and funny drawing style that works well for her.

The Doug Wright Awards 2011, by Dustin Harbin. This is a collection of the strips Harbin did at earlier in 2011 as part of their Cartoonist's Diary series. It's essentially a love letter to Canada and its Doug Wright Awards, a ceremony honoring the best of English-language Canadian comics. Harbin is impressed by the simplicity (just four awards), sincerity and seriousness of the event. It's an event that everyone involved believes in, a group that includes the greater Canadian cultural community, not just comics. Harbin heaps on the praise a bit exorbitantly, though he's aware that his status as an outsider perhaps blinds him to Canada's flaws. That said, there's no question that Canada has produced some of comics' greatest artists over the past thirty years or so, and so an event like the Doug Wright Awards is certainly warranted. The real appeal of this comic is Harbin's remarkable skill as a caricaturist, really nailing artists like Chester Brown & Seth without belittling them.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tom Hart and Leela Corman Need Your Help

In an unspeakably heart-rending tragedy, Rosalie Lightning, the young daughter of cartoonists Tom Hart & Leela Corman, died unexpectedly this week. Their friend Lauren Weinstein is setting up a Paypal fund to help defray the awful expenses at this time, as well as possibly establish a scholarship in Rosalie's name at Hart & Corman's new Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville, FL. Hart found a working space for the school just a few weeks ago and released the first curriculum for the 2012-2013 school year, when SAW will open. Here's the link to Weinstein's Paypal account. Please consider making a donation if you can.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

SAW-Related Comics and Broadsheets

I've previously mentioned the Sequential Artists Workshop that Tom Hart & Leela Corman are opening in Gainesville, FL (home of the University of Florida). Recently, the school announced its initial curriculum for the fall of 2012. Hart spent years at the School of Visual Arts in New York and is writing a text on teaching comics; he's a fine writer about and critic of comics as well as being one of the best cartoonists of the Xeric generation that sprang up in the early 1990s. Hart is known for his close relationships with many of his students, and as such he's been selling two broadsheets at conventions that reflect his interest and guiding hand.

The first is Seriously Comics, a broadsheet that Hart says was inspired by Peter Bagge's classic I Like Comics fanzine from the 90s. Hart wanted a goofier, more irreverent take on comics than something like The Comics Journal or Comic Art and wanted it in a cheap, disposable format. As such, this broadsheet is a great success. While Hart is all over this publication, his former student Stephanie Mannheim is the engine behind nearly every feature, which functions as the most entertaining school newspaper ever. The cover functions like an issue of The Onion, with snippets of "stories" like "Webcartoonist Just Can't Seem to Make Cathy Existential", "Is Dewey A Gay Icon?" and "Pizza Island is WOMEN!" mixing with teasers for actual stories. The combination of Hart's enthusiasm and sincerity with Mannheim's boundless energy and smartass attitude results in a publication that's more than just a lark. Indeed, the interviews with Dash Shaw, Gary Panter and Keith Mayerson (yes, this is a highly SVA-centric publication) are substantive and revealing.

That said, it's the ancillary material, the frosting on the cake, that sets this apart from other comics publications. In addition to a page of comics by Aaron Renier, there's a good old-fashioned fumetti strip featuring "Stacey Nightmayer" and various cartoonists, a photo feature on the amusing "Ballpoint Boxers" event (wherein female cartoonists drew on men, a flip of an event from 1950 wherein a bunch of male cartoonists drew on women in bathing suits), and a hilarious feature called "Vote For Your Favorite New York Cartooning Couple". This send-up of tabloid journalism was perhaps a little in-jokey, but most of the people buying this will probably get the references. I hope that Hart & Mannheim can keep this going.

The other broadsheet Hart's been selling is Isra Rushes Out Of The Sandcastle, a collection of one-page comics from various of his students hand-picked by Hart. It's a surprisingly strong anthology given that much of it is student work (with some stories directly adapted from assignments), featuring a number of different visual approaches. There's delicate, image-driven comics as poetry from Alexander Rothman, brush-heavy confessions from Li-Or Zaitzman and a hilarious, scatological manga-inflected comic by Kendra Wells for starters. There are excerpts from larger works (like a surreal, expressively-drawn story from Maria Sputnik and a page from a Mannheim comic that frankly doesn't make sense outside its larger context. Not everything in here sparkles (Hillary Allison's crack at a daily, gag-driven comic strip features fairly stale observations and Shauna Grant didn't have the chops to pull off her manga-meets-classic-cartooning stylings), but it's all at least solid and some of it is outstanding. In particular, I thought the last three cartoonists featured all had distinctive visual styles. Henry Fernau's kinetic woodcut-style piece had a wonderfully expressive economy of storytelling. Alabaster did a fine job of channeling classic cartooning and balancing it against classic literature. Finally, Katie McEwen's delicate illustration reminds me of the fragile work of Aidan Koch or Amanda Vahamaki.

Mannheim's own Nate The Nonconformist Crashes A Party minicomic is over-the-top social satire in the vein of Peter Bagge's Hate! Mannheim employs a similar kind of grotesque, exaggerated figure work to take aim at the sort of self-styled punk "non-conformist" who thinks a t-shirt bought from Hot Topic is a cultural and political statement. The targets are broad and a little easy in this comic, but Mannheim makes up for that with bugged-out eyes, sharpened teeth and some pretty trenchant jokes. (Having songs like "Whip My Hair" and "Black & Yellow" playing at the party was pretty amusing, for example.) Having the titular character crash an intervention because he mistook it for a party was another great gag. Mannheim is more directly parodic than Bagge in terms of her targets (no one in this comic resembles a realistic character), edging more towards Johnny Ryan in terms of the way she sets up gags and how far she's willing to take them. She definitely has her own style, however, and it's fully-formed and distinctive.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Comics of Emma T. Capps

Emma Capps is kind of an odd case to review. She's precocious and wants the reader to know it, plastering the fact that she's an award-winning 14-year-old cartoonist all over her comics and promotional material. This would be grating if she wasn't otherwise so endearingly enthusiastic about every aspect of comics and art. It must also be said that she sent me the most organized and best-looking press kit I have ever seen from an individual artist. There was a crisply-written letter of introduction, a selection of her hand-made postcards with personal messages, an impressive sheet with pull quotes, a business card and the comics themselves, all collected in a folder that has a Chapel Chronicles sticker on them. I'm not sure if her fastidiousness is a way of letting adults know that she's serious about all of this and wants to do the best job possible or if that's simply her nature. Either way, one couldn't help but be impressed with the packaging and her confidence.

The magazine-sized comic she enclosed is a collection of The Chapel Chronicles, Capps' webcomic. Chapel is loosely based on Capps, drawn with big red hair and huge feet. Despite the strip getting off to a rocky start when Chapel introduces herself as "zany" (violating the basic storytelling tenet of "show, don't tell"). Capps quickly wins the reader over with her charming and stripped down character design. These strips don't generally feature gags, per se; instead, they are built around the amusing observations and foibles of its lead character. Capps takes us through a night of playing board games with a babysitter, how Chapel does (or doesn't do) her chores, how Chapel becomes obsessed with Lady Gaga, and what happens when Chapel gets a pet hedgehog. It's all lightweight and cute, unburdened by pretension. What makes it worth reading is Capps' obsession with detail: adding eye pops, taking jokes to strange places (like popping into Alice's Adventures In Wonderland at one point) and even her artist's comments below each piece. The main problem with this comic is that her use of color is occasionally garish and overwhelming. There are times when she seems determined to have something eye-grabbing in every panel and relies on color splashes instead of the strength of her composition. Her drawings are certainly expressive enough on their own; a splash of color would more than suffice to provide a vivid reading experience.

Her more interesting and ambitious comic is Jam Days, an autobio story about Capps' quest to get enough cherry plums to make her own jam. Other than employing a lot of weird perspective, this is a solidly designed and attractive comic that brings life to some quotidian details about a day spent adventuring outside. The comic captures her constantly whirring mind, giving a fairly quiet set of events a surprising amount of momentum. Her use of color is much more restrained in this comic, and the result is a palette that flatters her linework. Capps has pretty good chops at this stage of her career, especially in terms of drawing from life and drawing objects. She's also a solid storyteller. It's obvious that she has a relentless work ethic, which is the only way a young artist can get better in a relatively short period of time. Capps' work at this stage is not unlike Ariel Schrag's first book, Awkward: enthusiastic, episodic and having more to do with being a child than being a young adult. I'll be curious to see how she continues to develop, what kinds of choices she makes as an artist and if her devotion to comics will remain steadfast as she grows older.

Monday, November 7, 2011

CCS Minis: Cockle, Frakes, Taylor

#7, by Aaron Cockle. This is Cockle's best work to date, a comic where the artist found a way to match his rendering ability with his deliciously enigmatic and bold storytelling choices. Cockle is very much interested in telling genre stories, but it's hard to pin his work down to a particular genre. I suppose "science-fiction" is as good a descriptor as any, especially given that aliens are a major presence in this story, "S.O.S." It concerns an author living on an elaborately-equipped ship at sea, visited by alien luminaries and reporters while dealing with foreign dignitaries and traitors in his midst. Cockle has a way of unraveling a high concept out of sequence, but does so in a way that intrigues rather than confuses. He also loves playing with text and information; for example, the author's name is redacted throughout the story. The story centers around the author's unique discovery: the ability to change around human consciousness and memory through an elaborate series of Edits and Revisions--a sort of MLA guide applied to the mind. Cockle is careful to keep the author's motivations a mystery but hints that he may not be exercising as much free will as he thinks. The author is depicted with a delightful bulbousness--all jowls and nose and receding hairline. This is the latest in a loosely-related series of stories (at least thematically) dealing with Cockle's fascination with eschatology, each one dealing with a different way in which secret deals and knowledge might cause the end of the world. Cockle's work grows more exciting with each passing issue, and he's on his way into developing into a major talent.

Tragic Relief #10, by Colleen Frakes. This is a typically strong entry for Frakes in her oeuvre of dark fantasy/fairy tales. The way she spots blacks in particular is quite striking, as the trees in the forest are just jagged lines of white standing in relief against an oppressively pitch-black night sky. This issue is the the third part of her unsettling but humorous adaptation of the Basket Ogress myth, and it builds to what seems to be an exciting climax. The Ogress took one girl away from a sleepover for telling stories about her, leaving the other to track her down, with the help of a series of animals whose speech she is suddenly able to understand. In a clever sequence, the captured girl entertains the Ogress (waiting for the rocks to heat up so she can eat the girl) with the story that details her demise as the other girl finds a way to defeat her (in an amusingly gross and fantastic fashion--she slid down the giant Ogress' throat and tossed lit matches into her stomach). Frakes' brush captures the simplicity of shadowy figures as though they had been scrawled in the dirt or on a cave wall, rendering them in a more cartoonish fashion on other pages. All told, this seems like a much more all-ages story than her usual, more visceral fare, but there are genuine scares to be found in this story, like in all good fairy tales. I'll be eager to see this story in its eventual collected form, because it will really pop off the page given the right format.

Light Riot: Departure, by Rio Aubry Taylor. Taylor labels this truly strange comic "Fantastical Autobiography", and I've certainly never read anything quite like it. The comic opens with a psychedelic, anthropomorphic pterodactyl creature who lives in the moon ordering her servant to bring him a special soul from Earth for testing. That soul turns out to be that of the author, drawn in a manga-influenced (almost superdeformed) style, pondering whether or not his girlfriend is a junkie. From there, his soul gets separated from his body, which goes on to live and act without him. The soul goes through a series of trials with the insectoid servant of "Mother" on its way to the moon, while the body is retrieved by friends, where he learns that his girlfriend killed herself. "Mother" tells Rio that she's going to help him learn how to control his pain as he learns his "spiritual capacity". Taylor doesn't skimp on sci-fi spectacle in the action sequences of the book, with all sorts of eyeball-melting pyrotechnics, flying death's head marauders and a trippy light show on the way to enlightenment. The autobio elements are raw and almost uncomfortably intimate, assuming that those aspects of the story are based on Taylor's actual experiences. Even if they aren't, it's a heavy counterpoint to the fanciful sci-fi story. Taylor isn't quite in control of his line just yet; his gestures and body language is a bit stiff at times, and there's an awkwardness to the way his characters interact in the space of a panel. At times, his intense stylization is ahead of his basic storytelling ability and character rendering skill. Taylor is an artist who is clearly thinking about deeply spiritual issues, which are further explored in his four-page mini "Masks That Grown-Ups Sell Me And The Lies They Tell We". The point of this comic is to approach the world by seeking hopeful spaces and trying to remain as child-like as possible in the sense of not hardening our masks of identity, fear and pain. Taylor is treading on territory similar to that of Theo Ellsworth, another artist who lives in a different headspace at times, but he's clearly willing to go pretty deep into the well of his own personal pain. That's powerful stuff, even if he's not all the way there yet as a storyteller.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gags From CCS: Bonesteel & Life Is Good

Let's take a look at a couple of minis from two grads of the Center for Cartoon Studies that have specialized in humor.

Bonesteel, by GP Bonesteel. This is a collection of fanciful diary comics from Bonesteel, a cartoonist with a limited range in terms of his line but an expansive imagination. He's a fine storyteller who isn't afraid to push the envelope in many of his comics, but the humor here is surprisingly tame and typically geek-friendly. Bonesteel seems to be going for a highly simplified, cute character design style not unlike a typical syndicated cartoonist. While his own self-caricature is perfectly rendered, he seems to have a lot more trouble drawing women (including his fiance'). The best jokes in the comic are those that aren't so heavily dependent on pop culture references and that push the bounds of good taste (like a hilarious strip about showing his love for mini-wheats cereral by depicting himself masturbating to them). There's the kernel of a good strip here, but Bonesteel needs to work on figuring out a direction that works best, making it different enough from standard webcomics to stand out, and honing the designs of his other characters to make them more interesting to look at. (Fixing the strip's many spelling errors certainly wouldn't hurt.) Like many webcartoonists, this feels like Bonesteel trying to get better in public by working steadily, emphasizing production and discipline above all else.

Life Is Good #7, by Steve Seck. Seven issues into this anthropomorphic social satire, Seck has really tightened up his art, focused his narrative and resolved the storyline in a funny and satisfying manner. Seck made the wise decision of giving his funniest characters the most screen time without overusing them, as slimy vegan poser Dr Peace Rock conspires against Charles the Gator and awful crusty-wannabe Sewer Gator annoys lead character Brownie on virtually every page. This comic is all about losing one's job, living on the margins of society, dealing with the weird characters one finds on those aforementioned margins, and the hypocrisy that can result by conflating principles with ego. Seck's lettering is still a little hard to read at times (especially when he mixes upper and lower case letters), but there's a much greater clarity to his work now, even on pages when he jams in as many as a dozen panels. I'll be curious to see if there's another storyline featuring these characters or if Seck goes in a completely different direction.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Comics Journalism of Josh Kramer

Cartoon Picayune #2 by Josh Kramer. Kramer, like Dan Archer before him, had journalism on his mind when he went to the Center for Cartoon Studies. Unlike Archer, whose comics have a political bent, Kramer seems to prefer human interest stories. The second issue of his journalistic anthology series finds him including other correspondents, but all of them are subject to his rigid rules regarding sourcing and quotes. Even if the stories are drawn as a narrative with dialogue, Kramer makes a point of making the reader understand that his stories are "rigorously reported". The Cartoon Picayune reminds me most of Brendan Burford's Syncopated anthology, which features similar first and second person reporting styles. Unsurprisingly, Kramer's reach is a local one, with stories about a local high school ski jumping team, a gubernatorial primary, a day camp for rock, and the evolution of a local brewing company.

"Fly By Night" is hampered by being the second part of a story about that ski jumping team. The angles he was approaching did become quickly evident, however, like the young rookie girl and the team's star who was trying to beat the best jumper in the state. When Kramer is drawing diagrams or depicts motion, his art is certainly up to the task of getting across his ideas. His major flaw as an artist is depicting different faces. In this story that features so many different characters, this is a significant problem. I think Kramer is cognizant enough of this problem to get around it by emphasizing emotion through using lettering and body language. Kramer is admirable in that he doesn't try goosing the results of his story to make it more dramatic, which is especially unusual for a sports-related story. Instead, Kramer is more interested in the mechanics of the sport, how the kids got into it, and the minutiae of how a ski jump meet is conducted. In terms of the action, Kramer is best at drawing sharp angles, which made him perfect for depicting the actual jumps.

"School's In For Summer" sees Kramer change some of his approach a bit, giving his characters tiny white circles for eyes. There are still some awkward drawings of characters in some panels, but there's generally a better balance between character and background. The story itself is a quick but thorough examination of a "school of rock" summer program, going through the program's goals and interviewing some of the kids. Kramer also did a separate mini called One Place, One Cheese, which details the process two local cheesemakers go through in creating their product, as well as providing other details about their lives. In each of his stories, Kramer has a way of letting his subjects speak for themselves without adding his own editorializing as to why they're interesting or significant. The simple choice he makes to write about them indicates that he thinks they're worth of reportage.

Bill Volk's story about the history of Iron City Beer in Pittsburgh, "'arn", suffers a little from letting the new CEO talk at length without really challenging any of his premises. Volk's cartooning is quite lively, however, and the slightly grotesque touch he added to his character designs was an interesting choice. The folksy reporting style of James Sturm and the delicate character drawings of Katherine Roy were a perfect match in the depiction of a day in the life of a candidate for the governorship of Vermont, "Honk and Wave". Given that this was a story consisting entirely of talking heads, it was to Roy's credit that she made it so interesting to look at. Kramer certainly did a nice job as an editor, balancing three different kinds of stories in the sort of anthology that's quite rare. Kramer's rock-solid standards as a journalist and his editorial eye are a great foundation for his work; it will simply take time and experience as a cartoonist to bring that aspect of his work up to the rest of his standards.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Brief Comments On Short CCS Minis

Finding Moby Dick, by Laura Terry. This is "a collection of sketches, drawings and comics"; more half-formed ideas than anything coherent. I don't have any interest in critiquing the content, given that the ideas are half-formed. Instead, I wanted to mention that this little sketchbook mini (in full color, no less) is further evidence of just how far Terry has come as an artist. Her figure work is so much more self-assured, for one thing, as is her general command over line and using different line weights. Most impressive, however, is the highly expressive way she uses color. In one story snippet, she shapes the story of a shipwreck using only midnight blue and blacks for spotting. Another image of three skeletons dancing on the ocean is rendered in aqua blue and sea-foam green. Her figure work in general is lively, full of personality and edged with humor. This is an artist who's ready for a leap forward in terms of the scope of ambition in her projects.

Zee Leetle Prince, by Katie Moody. This mini is an interesting exercise in style, as Moody takes the classic story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery "as filtered through Ed Emberley". Moody turns the book into kind of a goof for kids, rendering the characters in illustration teacher Emberley's trademark simple style (everything is basic geometric figures, lines, and squiggles--things almost anyone can draw) and adding a Pepe' LePew style French patois (The first line of the comic is "Zere wonce was a leetle prince"). The only problem with the comic was that there simply weren't enough images, and most of those images were just too small. An Emberley-style book packs a lot of visual punch into each page, even if the figures themselves are tiny, and this was dominated by text. That's not to say that the mini didn't have its charms, especially since Moody never strayed from the silliness of her text, but it didn't succeed in what she set out to do.

Moose #3 and #4, by Max de Radigues. De Radigues' series takes true narrative form in these two issues. The protagonist of the series, a nervous teen named Joe, is exhibiting all sorts of odd behavior, we learn, because of the way he's harassed by a bully. He has the opportunity to talk to a teacher about it in #3, but with his tormentor standing right outside the door, he has to hold it in. This issue is all about setting up the hopelessness of his situation in conventional terms. The fourth issue is about Joe managing to hide from the bully and his crony (whom he keeps in line with threats of physical violence when he's not gung-ho about torturing Joe). There's a sweetness to this issue as Joe doesn't exactly solve his problem, but he does derive some satisfaction from frustrating his nemesis (whose self-esteem seems to derive entirely from tormenting him). As always, de Radigues uses a fragile, simple line that emphasizes angles and negative space. His characters, though simply-rendered, are lively and bursting with emotion. de Radigues' ability to portray body language is remarkably intuitive, and he seems to thrive doing this short episodes that include eye-catching covers and incidental illustrations by guest artists.

Freeloader #1, by Nomi Kane. This is a typically charming and well-drawn set of short strips about being unemployed and living with one's parents after graduating from college. Her thoughts turn from her preferred job (illustration) to slightly less glamorous pursuits (like waitress, delivery person and stripper). Kane's all about the gag in this story (her bit about being unable to jiggle as a stripper was especially amusing), though the gag covers up real stress. This comic is also about the rare opportunity she has to live with her parents for an extended time as an adult, which is both stressful (because of the limbo she finds herself in) and an unexpected delight. Kane's character design and self-caricature are enormously appealing and have always been her major strength as an artist, and this comic is no exception.

Twelve New Drawings, by DW. DW is a CCS student who is clearly heavily influenced by Fort Thunder and the old Highwater Books comics. His drawings have the raw, hypnotic power of Ron Rege and Marc Bell, without the level of craft and sophistication of those two masters. There's not much narrative at work here, but each page is worth close inspection as DW mixes decorative patterns with hidden messages, surprising images and even small narrative snippets. It feels like sketchbook work, a form of graphomania almost, in that the artist is drawing just to draw, to make marks on paper. His bold sense of design is something that will serve him well as he shapes this vision, especially since CCS emphasizes narrative structure in even its most avant-garde students. He's someone to keep an eye on.
Early, by Joseph Lambert. This is a full-color charmer that involves Lambert's typical subjects: quarrellous little kids and the sun and moon as anthropomorphic beings. This eight pager finds a kid getting mad at the sun for melting his ice cream cone and throwing a spider at him. The sun freaks out and sinks early (a lovely metaphor for the way time can pass for a child), only to reemerge later and ask the moon if she's afraid of spiders. What's interesting about this strip is that Lambert cuts way down on his typical level of detail in favor of letting the color tell the story. The back cover has the unexpected bonus of telling the story from the poor spider's point of view.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Music As Map: Beth Hetland

The first two issues of Beth Hetland's Fugue are indicative of a young artist who has taken on an ambitious, personal project as one of her first major works. Choosing to attempt to depict music on the comics page is a particularly difficult trick for a young artist, but Hetland's obvious understanding of musical composition turned this into one of the comic's main strengths. Fugue is the story of Patricia Gullo and her journey through music. Its subtitle is "a family in three parts", and that's the true focus of the book: the ways in which families support, pressure, disappoint and eventually pick each other up. While the performance of music is a key component of the story, the way music is written is even more important. A score is not the music, but rather a map or puzzle that can lead to the treasure of music once it's decoded. To go back to Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville, maps as we understand can be decoded to understand our relationship to space. Comics can be read to understand a narrative as it relates to time and space. A musical score, once played, makes the sublime audible. That is, music is not an art form that can be reduced to a privileged material structure (like a sculpture or painting) or even reproduced like a comic or book. The art form is not even the recording of the music; that is an imperfect attempt at capturing the sublime experience of hearing music in one's head as a composer does. Only the map of a piece of sheet music comes close to providing the clues that will allow a listener to pick up on this.

That's why Patricia throughout both issues is so obsessed with the composer's original intent: music isn't just about fun, self-expression and camaraderie (though these elements are important as well), it's about chasing the sublime experience. The first issue was about her having the courage to truly pursue music as her passion, to have the confidence to work hard in testing the limits of her talent. There's a great two page spread where her future boyfriend (and husband) gives her a tab of LSD and they listen to Pachelbel, an immersive experience that helps cement the idea that nothing is more important than music. Pursuing the sublime has its price, however, as she freezes up at her senior recital and is unable to perform. She's afflicted by a kind of vertigo as the fear is not of performing per se, but a fear of not doing justice to the work as it was originally scored. That fear of not being great is a paralyzing one, a fear that has nothing to do with creation or performance and has everything to do with expectation and judgment. Or as Lynda Barry puts it, the Two Questions: "Is this good?" "Does this suck?"

The second issue explores this dynamic with her three daughters. It's clear that they all have some kind of musical talent and/or interest, but it's immediately suggested by her husband that she's pushing them to do play. In other words, she wants to live vicariously through her children to finish the job of performing and grasping the sublime. But that's not what it's all about; indeed, she also simply wants to share herself with her children, to play with them as a way of expressing a mutual love for something they love dearly. Who better to play with than one's own children? And "play" is an interesting term to use, because just as playing an instrument is an expression of joy that's done with great seriousness, so is play for a young child a matter of great focus and concentration. Beyond wanting musical partners, Patricia wanted to pass on the simple joy of music to her children. It's something that keeps her in check when she was about to go too far in pressuring her children to play the way she wanted them to. The danger of inculcating a hatred of music in her children was too horrible to contemplate, and that allowed her to come to her senses before she went too far.

Still, the idea of one of her children being good enough to reach for that kind of musical mastery continued throughout the book. Her first daughter, Alison, was clearly a talented player but had no interest in learning how to read music. That was too much like work and music to her was simply a matter of pleasure. Her second daughter, Beth (presumably the author or the author's stand-in), could read and understand music (and certainly loved it), but she was much more interested in drawing than playing. It was the youngest daughter, Rachel, who shared the same gift as her mother. She was portrayed as being developmentally delayed: quiet, grim and distant, she doesn't talk until she was four (when she sneaks out of her blanket fortress to play at the piano). When everyone else noticed, she copped to learning by ear--which happened to be her first words! She grew up to have the same kind of talent as her mother, but faced the same dilemma: mastery of a certain Mozart piece was beyond her grasp, and the fear of not being able to face up to the task of performing the music in front of a group of witnesses paralyzed her just as her mother was paralyzed. She and her mother are both dreamers, something that gives both of them inspiration but also can provide the seeds of its own ruin.

I'll be curious to see how Hetland ties all of this up in a third issue, but I wanted to comment on some formal aspects of the work. First of all, Hetland repeats certain motifs throughout the comic much like a piece of music might. The most common set of "notes" she repeats is the passage of time as expressed as a child sitting at a piano bench, getting noticeably older panel-by-panel. There's also the sort of conflict and resolution you might hear in a symphony, expressed in the form of both panels and notes. Of course, the second issue resolves in much the same way as the first, providing each issue/movement with a recurring theme. The eyes of Hetland's characters are black dots, while their eyebrows are simple lines; clearly, they are meant to imitate notes on a scale. That's made clear on one page where notes and a stripped-down version of Rachel's face are presented in alternating panels. Hetland's line is simple and unfussy. The main critique I have of her work is that she's better at page design and panel composition than she is at drawing figures. Sometimes, the way figures interact with each other in space is distorted. Her anatomy (even the way she simplifies it on the page) is also wonky at times, with arms and legs bending at strange angles in otherwise normal scenes; even if this was intentional, it's a distraction to the simplicity of the story. Lastly, she relies too much on facial expression to get across body language, which has the effect of making the bodies somewhat irrelevant. It's not an accident that the pages that are talking heads and musical notes are the strongest in these comics. These drawbacks don't mar the ambition of these comics and the cleverness with which she's designed them. In her own pursuit of the sublime, Hetland has simply gone for it in a very public fashion, and I'll be excited to see how she manages to stick the landing.